HBO Boxing host Jim Lampley referred to it as “an insider’s prizefight.” It was the first meeting in the ring between junior welterweights Arturo Gatti and “Irish” Micky Ward, taking place May 18, 2002, at the Mohegan Sun in Connecticut. Their bloody battle that night set the stage for two more fights in what came to be known as The Trilogy, an unforgettable three bouts that demonstrated the simultaneous beauty and brutality of boxing at its apex.
The HBO Sports Legendary Nights boxing documentary series revisits the remarkable rivalry and ultimate friendship between the two fighters in “The Tale of Gatti-Ward,” which debuts on the pay-cable network at midnight on Saturday, following that night’s “World Championship Boxing” bout.
Neither Gatti, an Italian-Canadian from Quebec who settled in Jersey City, N.J., nor Ward, who lived and trained in Lowell, Mass., were exactly household names when their promoters arranged their first fight. Both were tenacious and almost inhumanly determined to never quit, no matter how many times they were knocked down, or how many parts of their bodies were in pain. In this way they were mirror images, a fact that bonded the two together through their brutal exchanges in the ring.
If there is one round that defined Gatti versus Ward, it was round nine of their first 10-round bout. Ward catches Gatti with a blow to the side, knocking him down and causing Gatti to wince in agony. Gatti gets to his feet a half-second before a knockout ruling would have stopped the fight. Ward keeps attacking, until his energy flags. Gatti seizes the opening and backs Ward into the ropes. Back and forth, the punishing exchanges continue, each man wearing enough visible blood to get them cast in a horror film.
With about 30 seconds left in the round, Gatti’s trainer, Buddy McGirt, starts moving up the steps to the ring, preparing to stop the proceedings to save his man from any more brutality. “You can stop it anytime, Frank,” Lampley says during that night’s broadcast. But referee Frank Cappuccino saw enough life left in Gatti that he let things proceed. The bell finally rings and the men stagger to their corners.
Lampley, in the documentary, reflects on that night.
“While I’m shouting, ‘You can stop it anytime, Frank,’ there’s a part of me inside that’s saying, ‘Stop that. This isn’t professional.’ You know, I literally was out of control, because the fight was out of control, the crowd was out of control, the moment was out of control.”
In the single most moving moment of the documentary, Lampley is moved to tears when he looks back at that first bout, calling round nine the greatest thing in boxing or sports that he ever witnessed.
In a close decision, the judges declared Ward the winner of their first fight. After the epic confrontation — one that’s truly worthy of the overused phrase “instant classic” — a rematch is arranged for just six months later, this time in Atlantic City. Gatti trains harder and prepares better for this one, and ends up winning the second fight by decision. Ward was knocked down several times in the bout, and had his balance compromised by injuring an eardrum, but he fought on. Afterward, Gatti was quoted as saying, “I used to wonder what would happen if I fought my twin. Now I know.”
The next rematch came, again, about six months later, in Las Vegas. By this point, Gatti vs. Ward is no longer a well-kept secret. They draw huge crowds and a devoted TV audience. Forgive the spoiler here, but the fight did take place in June 2003. In another 10 rounds of painful punching and beautiful boxing, Gatti wins the third fight by decision.
By this time, the two boxers are sharing hugs in the ring before the bell rings. They developed such a healthy respect for one another that it would blossom into a deep friendship.
HBO Boxing analyst Larry Merchant observes in the film, “We could see in front of our eyes this bond starting to form. It was a bond of pain and respect, and it couldn’t be written in a script.”
Merchant almost gets teary-eyed when sizing up the third fight.
“They emptied themselves out for us,” he says. “They gave up a piece of their lives for us.”
Ward decided to retire at age 37 after completing The Trilogy. Gatti invited him to join his ring entourage for his next fight. Ward began training fighters up in Lowell, and Gatti eventually signed on as a client. Gatti hung up his gloves for good after losing to Alfonso Gomez in July 2007, but did not get to enjoy his retirement for long. On July 12, 2009, Gatti was found dead in a hotel room in Brazil where he had been vacationing with his wife, Amanda Rodrigues, and their young son. Authorities in Brazil originally arrested Rodrigues on suspicion of murdering Gatti, but she was released after 18 days in jail. A subsequent official investigation there concluded Gatti died by suicide, a ruling that angered many of his family members and friends. Gatti was 37.
The documentary follows Ward to Canastota and the Boxing Hall of Fame, which inducted Gatti last spring. Ward was there to shake hands and share hugs with Gatti’s family, and to talk about his unforgettable rival and friend.
Mark Wahlberg played Ward in a 2010 film about his career called “The Fighter,” which was nominated for seven Academy Awards. But it’s hard to top the real-life drama played out by Gatti and Ward in their three epic fights.
• A 24-hour-extension from the NFL and a fan-friendly decision by Ralph Wilson to guarantee a sell-out ensured that today’s CBS broadcast of the Bills-Bengals game will air in Western New York. Boomer Esiason, the former Bengals and Jets quarterback who appears on CBS’ “The NFL Today” as well as games for Westwood One radio, will be a guest analyst in the booth today at Ralph Wilson Stadium.
“Every time I got back to Buffalo, I think about the Bruce Smith hit I took in 1995,” when he played for the Jets, Esiason said last week. Boomer suffered a concussion and says he was one of the first players to be studied by the NFL for the effects of his head injury. “So it’s not always the greatest of memories in that building,” he said.
• Bruce Smith made an appearance on Showtime’s “Inside the NFL” and discussed the state of the Bills with James Brown, Phil Simms and Cris Collinsworth. Smith came off as a very smooth speaker who could surely have a career in broadcasting if he pursued it. He talked about his long-time ties to EJ Manuel, who is Smith’s godson, and his belief that the Bills now have the best defensive line they have ever had. And it was nice for Bills fans to hear the Hall of Famer refer to the Bills franchise as “us” and “we.”